The just-begun school year on college campuses is threatening an invigorated effort in support of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. From academic bodies to student groups, agitation is reportedly building — ostensibly in support of the Palestinian cause — to brand Israel as an apartheid state, a colonial power and genocidal. The BDS machine is off and running.
Jewish communal leaders say they were caught off guard by the intensity of the worldwide anti-Semitism and vandalism, particularly in Europe, that accompanied the just-completed Gaza war. And they now fear that the Gaza experience will further embolden the BDS movement, which seeks to give academic imprimatur to blanket boycotts of Israel and strives to make BDS the intellectual and cultural norm on campus.
This year, however, there will be an organized Jewish communal effort on campus to combat the attempt to isolate and stigmatize Israel. Last month, Jewish Federations of North America and Hillel International convened a meeting with representatives of two dozen campus-based organizations to address the issue. Plans include launching training programs to organize college students in support for Israel.
We applaud these efforts and hope that in addition to strengthening participants’ connections to Israel, they will encourage the presentation of a multiplicity of points of view on campuses — a hallmark of academia, but a weak spot in past initiatives that tended to appear to college students as meddling from the outside instead of empowerment from within.
Pro-Israel activists would do well to consider the case of Steven Salaita, the former Virginia Tech professor of American Indian studies who was offered a tenure-track position at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The school rescinded its offer after reviewing some of Salaita’s distinctly unprofessorial tweets, such as “I wish all the f—-ing West Bank settlers would go missing,” which he wrote after three Israeli teens disappeared in June.
Salaita is unabashedly pro-BDS and even published in May a pamphlet called “How to practice BDS in academe.” In it, he seems not so concerned about the Palestinians, who most agree deserve a state of their own, as he is with “imperialism, military violence, corporate malfeasance and neoliberalism” as well as with “forces of repression, corporatism, conformity and inequality.”
As the Jewish community prepares to respond to these Israel bashers, it would be wise to try to distinguish those, such as Salaita who fundamentally wish Israel ill, from those who support Israel, but have misgivings against particular Israeli policies. As it stands right now, many of the latter choose to identify with BDS because they only see the extremes in the debate as options. By focusing on how the arguments should be presented, with respect to the nuanced issues involved, the new campus effort should enable the pro-Israel camp to make its points with persuasion, sensitivity and success.
Those promoting this initiative are involved in important work. We wish them well.